I learned a valuable lesson about suffering from, of all things, a neighborhood cat. She lives down the block from us and is an outdoor kitty because she beats up the indoor kitties. Otherwise she is well taken care of: food, shots, water, etc. However, she didn’t have a shelter, and a huge cold snap was coming. I asked my son if she had a warm place to stay and he said no.
So I sent my husband to the store for a plastic bin and some reflective insulation. The kids grabbed some scissors and packing tape and set about making a nice little house for Dobby, the cat. An hour later, she had a nice little shelter. My son and nephew took it to Dobby’s house and she hopped right in. I felt relief knowing that the sweet, friendly cat would have a place out of the wind and snow to spend the night.
I’ve thought about that simple act of kindness a lot for the last few days. Sure, it was my idea, but it was my husband and the kids that really did all of the work. I know I should give myself at least a small pat on the back for noticing the suffering of another living creature and doing something about it, but part of me feels like having any actual pride defeats the intent. Why should I feel pride about doing something that I felt HAD to be done? Not out of fear, as so much charity is done, but out of love for this small, furry creature. Her suffering became my suffering. Neither I nor my kids could stand the thought of her being in distress.
Suddenly the things that I have learned about Buddhism and suffering made sense. The Four Noble Truths tell us that life is “suffering”, for lack of a better translation. “Dissatisfaction” might be a better word. Our suffering is caused by attachment to other things, other people, to our desires (though I’m not sure if that really applies to a cat: I’ve noticed many of Mother Nature’s creatures are not susceptible to attachment the same way that we are). In this case, my suffering was caused by my empathy and compassion for another living thing, and I could only alleviate my own suffering by alleviating hers. Of course, I’m still “attached” to the cat, who wouldn’t be? Our attachments sometimes prevent us from being blind to their needs.
Then I thought about the broader implications of suffering, and the state of the world we are in now. Since DT was elected “President” in January of 2017, and even before then, since the election in 2016, I’ve been seething in anger and shock and disbelief. “This is not my country,” I thought to myself. We have been in a collective state of suffering ever since Barack Obama left office. But I was blinded to it by my anger towards DT and people like him. “How dare they piss on the Constitution and subjugate those they deem inferior, usually in the name of God!” My Facebook feed was, alternately, either silent for months or filled with post after post preaching to the choir about what a horrible person DT and his friends are and how they are the end of all that is good and just in America. I think more than a few people unfollowed me, not because they necessarily disagreed with me, but because it’s no fun having the equivalent of a shouting bullhorn on your news feed, even if you agree with what they’re saying.
And I had every right to be angry, and still do. “Can’t you see the suffering you’re causing the rest of us?”, I ask myself repeatedly. “Why don’t you get it?”
Then Dobby came along, and I realized, they’re suffering too. People don’t act that way unless they’re suffering. Everything we are observing in the world right now is the direct result of suffering. Yes, some are suffering more than others, but we’re all in the same suffering boat. DT, he’s suffering, and is in denial of it, and the rest of us are paying the price. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and the rest of their Republican cronies: they’re suffering, too. If you grew up with the hateful, vengeful, killer “God” that their brand of Christianity has brainwashed them into believing too, you’d also be suffering. As a pagan/Wiccan, I’ve seen many a brother and sister struggle out from underneath the cloak of shame and guilt that the Western “God” has laid over them, a cloak that was laid on them by people who themselves were suffering in some form.
Most Westerners don’t know how to “be” with their suffering. We do everything we can to avoid it and cover it up because it doesn’t feel good. We may even deny that we’re suffering in order to keep up the facade that everything is a-ok. But suffering begets suffering, and our unresolved suffering leads to suffering in those around us. Pretty soon we’re all miserable and blaming each other for why we’re miserable.
I’ve been filled with hatred towards DT and everyone like him in the government and everyone who voted for him. Yet I see now that it’s not helping. I am not only contributing to my own suffering, but to those I oppose as well. And it’s only by acknowledging the suffering of those we oppose will we ever hope to understand them well enough to begin to assuage it.
So here I am, saying, “I see your suffering.”
I see your pain. I see that it makes you do bad things out of fear and anger and hatred, because that’s what you’ve been taught. I understand, and I forgive you, at last. I thought that might never come, because I don’t think you quite realize yet what a horrible thing you’ve done. I pray we can prevent too much damage from occurring and that which is damaged is easily fixed.
But in this case, your suffering makes you dangerous and toxic because you are either unaware of it or have grown so used to it, like an old leather coat, that you no longer notice it or even find it comfortable. It is all you know. Siddartha Gautama, the man who would become the Buddha, was a member of his society’s warrior class. And in the same way, those of us who live the dharma are also warriors. And we are here to defend that which we hold dear while at the same time guiding those who live in darkness back into the light. We may be suffering, but we are strong, and there are more of us than there are of you.
But we are here for you when you’re tired of your suffering.